The attitude remains that the university has accepted the fate of the Penn State football program, that the NCAA’s sanctions are real and will last four more years.
But that doesn’t mean head coach Bill O’Brien and director of athletics Dave Joyner are not giving hints the NCAA should take into account how hard the university has worked to clear its reputation,and give Penn State a break.
Both men appeared on a conference call Friday morning, with the topic the planned trip to open the 2014 football season in Ireland against Central Florida, but that did not keep questions on other topics from entering the discussion nearly one year to the day since the NCAA dropped one of the harshest penalties ever imposed on a university’s athletic department.
While neither man would say if any overtures have been made to the NCAA specifically about reducing sanctions, they pointed out how hard the university has worked in the past year in dealing with the sanctions and what led to the penalties.
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“The university has done an outstanding job,” Joyner said. “I think that we have gotten good marks from Sen. (George) Mitchell and I am very hopeful and expectant that we will continue in that vein. So I think the university is on very solid ground not only with dealing with the things that have been given to us to do but also in maintaining our normal business. You saw the year our athletic teams and department had. How our student-athletes and coaches performed, it’s one of the best, if not the best year we have had at Penn State. And then how great the football program did given the heavy weight it had to carry and how Bill (O’Brien) did with that is right in line with the rest of Intercollegiate Athletics.”
With 11 conference titles won or shared by various athletic teams, eight of them in the Big Ten, along with 21 teams appearing in NCAA championship tournaments, three individual NCAA titles and a team title for the wrestling programs — not to mention an 8-4 record for the football team — there was plenty of sunshine glowing through the dark clouds.
Off the field, the university noted the benchmarks it has met for compliance with recommendations, and the glowing reports from Mitchell, who was assigned by the NCAA to monitor Penn State’s progress.
With that, the university has hopes of a good-faith gesture on the NCAA’s part.
“I think we’ve worked very, very diligently to stay in compliance, just like every other program around the country,” O’Brien said. “There are a lot of rules to follow and, again, we make our mistakes but we admit them right away, whether it’s a text message or something that we shouldn’t have sent. I think we are in compliance and hopefully at some point the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, hopefully they look at that, and they can meet us halfway.”
Having said that, O’Brien reiterated what he has been saying for months — that the Nittany Lions must deal with the hand they have been dealt, and need everyone helping the program and university succeed.
“I think we’re pulling in the same direction,” O’Brien said. “I respect everybody’s opinions. I’m asked questions over and over again about this football program and I just try to make sure people know what I think is best for the football program.
“What I believe is best for the football program and these kids. The main reason why we’re here, these student-athletes, is for everybody to pull in the same direction so hopefully we can continue to try to do that.”
While they are hoping the NCAA will relent, it is not an expectation.
“We are focused on dealing with the sanctions as they are right now,” Joyner said. “So whatever may or may not happen down the line is always contingent. We are not planning on anything happening, so we are paying attention to doing what we have to do.”
The sanctions, which included probation and a four-year bowl ban, meant the program had to get a little more creative to give football players and fans a reward for their loyalty when a trip to a warm locale on Jan. 1 was not in the cards. That was a catalyst for scheduling a trip to Ireland.
The Nittany Lions and Golden Knights will be meeting at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time Aug. 30, 2014, at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland. It will mark the first game outside the U.S. for the Nittany Lions in the 127-year history of the program.
“We wanted to do something to do something fun for alumni and fans,” Joyner said. “Even if we were allowed in the postseason we might have been looking at doing this kind of thing because I think it’s a really good idea from time to time to do it for our program, university and student-athletes. It’s not bad that it falls in the middle of everything we need to get done in the four-year period. It’s a shot in the arm of something exciting.”
“I thought it was important for our players to be able to travel somewhere overseas,” O’Brien said. “A lot of these guys have never been overseas so I think it’s a great experience for our players. I also believe that it’s a fantastic opportunity for our fans.”
Also, O’Brien was asked about the status of quarterback Tyler Ferguson, who has not been with the program this summer while home in California with his mother, who has been battling an undisclosed illness. Ferguson is a junior college transfer from the College of the Sequoias in California, and on the team depth chart released last month he was listed as the co-starter along with true freshman Christian Hackenberg. Rumors had been circulating Ferguson, who enrolled at Penn State in January, was leaving the program to stay home, but O’Brien quashed those rumblings.
“I’m not sure what the big deal is with that and, no, he’s not back at school,” O’Brien said. “Summer is voluntary so Tyler has gone home. His mom is sick, he’s got a great mom and he’s gone home and he’ll be back for training camp.”